New generations are entering working life. Who are these people – and will management have to evolve because of them?
“Today's students are used to social media and expect more and faster feedback than before. Interaction in which everyone gets to say their piece is another expectation.”
This is what Professor Janne Tienari of the School of Economics' Department of Management and International Business thinks. He is of the firm opinion that the generation he works with is of a new type and he finds their discussion-oriented approach rewarding, although the increased challenge may sometimes deplete resources almost to breaking point.
What happens when this strong-willed talent arrives at the workplace is another question. Tienari wants to influence this issue through the book Z ja epäjohtaminen (Z and non-management, Talentum 2011), which he has co-authored with his colleague Rebecca Piekkari.
The book begins with a vivid description of how a forty-something manager, who has progressed along a linear career path, gets a new subordinate – an openly organisation-critical representative of Generation Y, born in the 1980s. The story also mentions the new arrival's younger sister, who represents the even more liberal Generation Z that was born in the 1990s.
The authors declare that the management of new generations can no longer be stuck-up, hierarchical and egocentric, as a more subtle approach is needed.
They of course know that the young will not take over organisations in one sweep, and that the question of how to lead unalike people of different ages will always be the central challenge of management.
Tienari reckons that it is nevertheless worthwhile to focus on the young: if someone is making unheard-of demands concerning working life, we would be wise to listen.
“Unbiased thinking helps understand our differences. Optimally, this will spur diverse interaction and thus open avenues for developing management practices.”
Work is evolving, too
Project Manager Jouni Virtaharju of the School of Science's BIT research centre also teaches young students. He researches work psychology and management, and has reservations about changing management practices to accommodate new generations.
“This generation-speak pops up now and again. Typically, such talk comes from older generations, who think of themselves as us as opposed to them – the different, young people who they are apprehensive about encountering. Examples of this can be found as far back as the Middle Ages.”
Janne Tienari agrees with this. “A new breed of human is not emerging now, either, but the world is changing.”
Instead of thinking about how to change management in the face of the young, Jouni Virtaharju would prefer to analyse what the goals of generational debate are.
“On the one hand, the old look at the young with admiration and faith in progress, but they have apprehensions as well. Those in power want to know how they can steel themselves and keep holding the reins.”
Virtaharju reckons that management development pressures are spurred by changes in wider society and its values.
“Today's Finland is very different from what it was 20–30 years ago, with the growing tendency to focus on creative work a large factor in the change.”
Regardless, management logic still tends to correspond with the methods traditionally applied to industrial goods manufacture and controlling the masses. The idea that looser discipline is the path to anarchy is something Virtaharju constantly runs into in his consultancy work.
However, he himself believes that only very few people will commit abuses or make a run for the exit if given more freedom.
“Basing management policy on self-discipline is, especially in creative work, more effective than imposing discipline from above. Given freedom, people will begin to self-evaluate their conduct and will set their own targets.”
Guidelines and freedom
Responsibility and freedom are central themes of Tienari and Piekkari's book on non-management as well.
They describe a non-manager who balances the setting of guidelines and the creation of meaning, a narrative, for work. Within this framework, however, employees are free to choose their implementation methods and the non-manager has faith in their ability to steer their own actions.
Linda Liukas, 25, has similar thoughts when asked about her management preferences. She is a Project Coordinator at AaltoES, a student-driven business start-up community.
“I want managers to point out the direction to take. In a way, I want to own my work, have the freedom to become inspired by it, set goals, try, fail and succeed independently. I want to be my own person and to hold on to what I consider important while at work, but still be challenged to develop.”
In addition to her involvement in an AaltoES project that takes students across the Atlantic to learn entrepreneurship, Liukas is also a student and the organiser of Railsgirls web apps programming workshops for girls all over the world. She is just like the students described by Janne Tienari, someone who always has a finger in many pies.
The School of Economics takes the busy lives of its students into account when designing Master's degree programmes, but how will employers adapt to characters who want to do much more than just work for a specific company?
Tienari and Liukas both point out that younger generations also include people who value predictability and stability. On the other hand, people who don't share this appreciation have a right to shun commitment. After all, businesses are no longer committed to their employees either.
Linda Liukas says her career path might look complicated at the moment, but it could well take on a more linear appearance at some other life stage. What matters to her is that what she does has meaning – how it is labelled or how long a project may last is not so important.
She does, however, point out that an open job description is not the same thing as total freedom. She can go to a cafe or meet with her goddaughter in the middle of the day, but this means that she must correspondingly be prepared to work in the middle of the night when necessary.
Don't label us
Providing meaning is also key to the way with which Linda Liukas herself leads projects.
“The world is becoming more networked and faster, and this makes an ability to inspire people more important than money or authority. People are more prone to follow someone who leads by example than someone who just recites mantras.”
Tienari and Piekkari talk of Net youths in their book, and it feels like an apt way to describe Linda Liukas, who has always been interested in the Internet and is happy to use a computer in any situation. She has her own website as well as profiles on several social applications. She uses the Net to find cooperation partners for her projects and to work in several different time zones in a single day.
Still, she warns against labelling herself – or her generation – as being all-powerful. She is adamant that the technical tools, which facilitate work so much, should also be available to others in addition to her privileged generation. Furthermore, she insists that the world view of the people who developed these great tools should not become the only acceptable perspective.
Everything will not change
Janne Tienari and Jouni Virtaharju also warn against generalisation. As enthusiastic as Tienari is about the bold young talent emerging from the School of Economics, he doesn't hesitate to note that they do not represent their generation in full. Some young people are in real danger of becoming marginalised as well.
For his part, Virtaharju would like to point out that even though the West's creative classes are comfortable with talk about self-management and consuming work in a way that suits an individual's needs, these concepts have not won over the whole world.
“It is increasingly rare for a workforce of tens of thousands of people to head for the factory in the West, but this is still commonplace in countries like China, for example. Nor is the freedom to express yourself necessarily a topical issue of concern for employees performing manual labour tasks in Finland either.”
Virtaharju thinks that the present trend to camouflage management is just a part of the eternal pendulum motion of management debate. Whereas grandiose captains of change were still idolised some time ago, the ideal manager of today is more mundane, approachable and prepared to delegate.
Many have already taken on board at least some aspects of this idea, as dramatic gestures and external signs of power are seen more and more rarely. Even so, Virtaharju suspects that assuming the appearance of the present ideal might not always involve actual changes to operating practices. These are, however, needed if the share of creative work continues to increase and more and more employees seek out work environments with a culture of free management.
On the other hand, Virtaharju believes that certain traditional management virtues will always be in demand – everywhere and among every generation. These are respect and esteem for others, good manners, an eye for the game and the ability to act consistently even in difficult conditions.
Janne Tienari is also of the opinion that good people management skills are ageless.
“People want to be valued and listened to. Everyone wants to belong to a healthy community and receive fair compensation for their work.”
- Generation Z was born in the 1990s. Life experience: time and place in the traditional sense have lost meaning.
- Generation Y was born in the 1980s. Life experience: a world that appears to provide an abundance of everything. Also lived through the severe depression of the early 1990s, however.
- Generation X was born in the 1960s and 70s. Life experience: growing up in an incipient consumer society, where wellbeing began to be taken for granted.
- The Baby Boomers were born in the 1940s and 50s. Life experience: the material scarcity of post-war Finland and a hope for a better tomorrow.
Source: Janne Tienari and Rebecca Piekkari: Z ja epäjohtaminen. Talentum, 2011.